Catherine Madden The designer on why visual thinking can change the world

Cover Image - Catherine Madden

UX Designer, strategist, data Lover, and doodler Catherine Madden believes visual thinking can change the world. We’re all able to do it, we just need to loosen our inhibitions and tap into the part of our brain that can take big ideas and condense them into simple explanations. It’s not as hard as it sounds, especially when Catherine, one of the artists who has contributed her work to our Paper Store, helps you along the way.

Like a lot of us, when Catherine Madden was at school she was reprimanded for doodling in class. She’d get called up to the front of the room and the teacher would make her show them her notebook. “I’d be embarrassed,” she laughs. “There’s a misconception that if you're doodling, you're not paying attention.”

One time, her teacher opened the book to find not topical doodles, but just a drawing of him. He found it funny (thankfully) but it was clear what she was doing wasn’t necessarily the right way to be learning. This didn’t stop her doing it, though. In college, Catherine shared a class and a room with a friend who used to write tonnes of verbatim notes in class and memorise them. This friend was always perplexed at Catherine consistently getting better test scores than her, when her notes were interconnecting clouds, drawings and squiggles.

Flash forward to the present day and Catherine has forged a career harnessing the power of visual thinking. For years she worked as lead designer of Deloitte's Insight Studio during a time in the industry where; “the consultants were finally figuring out that design thinking and graphic design and creativity really important in the product and technology development process.” While there, Catherine worked with a team to take enormous amounts of data from companies who didn’t know how to make sense of it and break it down to clearly state what it can tell them and how that could potentially affect their business. “I had this ability to translate between the people who are doing the super-analytical work and the statistics to the people who needed the information to make decisions in their business,” she explains. “What really helped was making the conversation visual and actually using our imaginations...drawing it on a whiteboard or on my iPad, displaying it and actually mocking up an interface or a chart really fast.”

There are some tasks computers can do just fine. Whack some data into a spreadsheet and press a few buttons and it will translate it into colours, grids, pie charts – you name it. But a human brain like Catherine’s has a knack for translating and clarifying data in an accessible way that a computer never could. It’s a skill she’s always been good at, spent years honing, perfected at Deloitte and now is dedicating her life to visual thinking, while teaching others how to get better at it in the process. She holds online group tutorials (one, Drawing Data to Communicate Ideas, is free!), consults with businesses about how they can tell stories with data, and even teaches people how to visualize their resumés to give their potential employers a better idea of who they are. “Resumés are the worst,” she says. “No one wants to sit there and read that.”

One of the ways in which Catherine teaches teams in companies to lose their inhibitions and think visually is by holding something she called “Shitty First Draft Party” – a meeting in which people come together as equals to put down as many ideas on sticky notes as they can in two minutes. “Every single person in the room is drawing so you're not putting yourself out there alone,” she says. “Those are some really special brainstorming sessions; getting everyone involved really helps the people who feel a little bit nervous because they’ll look around and they’ll see that everyone’s drawings are pretty bad. There’s no erasers, there’s no option to refine and perfect with different colors and thickness of markers. It’s creating limits with timing and tools and then naming it shitty. I think people then begin to feel comfortable with trying to untap their visual mind.”

Catherine used the Shitty First Draft Party technique recently when working on a big project for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A huge team were looking at a report and harvesting data from it to then analyse, create findings and structure a story from. “My role was to help people figure out what is the narrative,” Catherine explains. “How are we going to communicate some of these abstract concepts?” One of the Shitty First Draft parties the team did was based around the idea of inequity and inequality and what they thought of it.

Led by Catherine, everybody did a few rounds of drawing on that topic. “It was so cool to see that the people in the room who are analysts and not storytellers were really focused on what inequality is and what it means,” she says. “They took all of their statistics and then drew them onto sticky notes.” This only became interesting when it was put against the drawings by the storytellers in the group. To illustrate inequality, they came up with a visual metaphor of a race. “So Bill and Melinda Gates would have had no hurdles in the race, but a girl born in, say, an impoverished area in Sub-Saharan Africa has a million hurdles in her race,” Catherine says. “Some of those initial ideas on sticky notes turned into actual visuals in the report months later, they really helped everyone look outside of their own thinking mode and it really shaped how the record turned out, which was super-cool to see.”

When we’re forced out of our comfort zones, we sometimes make excuses. What Catherine teaches is how we don’t need so much of what we think we do: to visualise ideas and data you just need your brain, a pen and some paper. Ideally, whatever tools “get you excited.” For Catherine it’s the iPad. “oh my gosh I love the iPad, it's so fun. The Paper app reads my mind,” she says. “But I do think a lot of people get tripped up on ‘well, I don't have an iPad,’ or, ‘I don't have a journal’ and I’m like, ‘yeah but you have a napkin if you're at a coffee shop, so just ask someone for a pen and start drawing your ideas. The thing you do need the most is a good mindset and then tool-wise, the less is better.”

Paper Store is a collection of creative prompts, daily exercises, and drawing tutorials. Turn "can't draw" into "can't stop.